“But to me, the lack of desire to have a child is innate. It exists outside of my control. It is simply who I am and I can take neither credit nor blame for all that it may or may not signify. But the decision to honor that desire, to find a way to be whole on my own terms even if it means facing the judgment, scorn, and even pity of mainstream society, is a victory. It’s a victory I celebrate every day.”
Danielle Henderson, “Save Yourself”
from Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed
I said in my last post that growing up I wanted to be a slew of occupations, but one thing that never wavered was my desire to be a wife and mother. I was raised Southern Baptist, which meant that I was indoctrinated early and often about God’s desire for me to be a “Proverbs 31 Woman,” that “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” I was a stubborn advocate for the pro-life movement in high school, and I can honestly say I gave little to no thought to the other sides’ arguments. I had God in my corner; what was there to think about? That was one of the most dangerous things about Christianity for me—the black-&-white of it.
Even after I started drifting away from Christianity, I still thought I wanted a family in the traditional sense. It took a while—as in four or five years—for me to realize I was no longer obligated to have one, that it didn’t make me any less of a woman, any less valuable to society or worthy of a good life and a good love if I chose not to procreate. My womb is still a sacred space even if another human never forms within it; I can still intimately know and be known even if it’s never from the inside out.
This personal revelation went in full effect early December of last year. It had been building for some time, but one day, I just knew. It was a week or so before Christmas, and I was about to celebrate one year with my live-in boyfriend. We were walking out of Wal-Mart with a cylinder of ornaments and hot cocoa mix when I asked him, “What if I don’t want to have kids?” Earlier that day I had attended the final classes for both my Graduate Fiction Workshop and the memoir class I was auditing, and, oddly enough (or not-so-oddly-enough, I suppose, as our society is rather obsessed with the topic, particularly in regards to women), the subject of childbearing came up in both.
In the fiction workshop the professor told us about a successful writer-friend he’s known since grad school, one who is publishing like a madman and has an enviable job teaching at a well-respected MFA, and how this man and his wife, who is a successful scientist in her own right, decided not to have children so they could both pursue successful careers in their own fields without distraction. This professor of mine went on to say, with a sadness and tinge of remorse still palpable to me, that he would never be as successful a writer or professor as this friend of his because he had chosen to have children instead.
The conversation about motherhood in the memoir class later that afternoon wasn’t quite as impactful, but it kept my wheels turning and a few hours later something clicked: I didn’t want children.
My boyfriend’s knee-jerk response to the question, “What if I don’t want to have kids?,” was that it was a deal breaker. It was never something we had discussed explicitly, but, rather, a component of life I think he took as a given (perhaps because the idea of children had been tacked on to the end of a few sentences during our year together, and I hadn’t broken down in a fit of tears or raged like a she-hulk at the very mention of them). Of course when he saw how upset this made me—that this thing we had never discussed in-depth, was never disclosed to me as a foundational, non-negotiable aspect of our relationship—he attempted to backtrack. But I’m not one for take-backs, and the damage was done. Not only that, but his “take-back” would deprive him of something he considered vital to his future happiness, just the same as having children would deprive me of the future I have planned.
The fact that we hadn’t talked about this fundamental topic didn’t bode well for our relationship anyway, but we had many other issues and our relationship ended just before New Year’s. The most hurtful part of that Wal-Mart parking lot conversation was not that he had assumed, perhaps for the simple reason that I am a woman, that I would want kids; it was not realizing how lazy we’d been with regards to truly knowing each other’s hopes and desires for the life we chose to share for a time; it was understanding that, in some large part, he wanted me for what my body was able to do for him, and if I denied him that capability, his initial response was that I wasn’t enough for him on my own.
Now, I don’t blame or resent him for wanting children—it is his right to want them just as much as it is my right not to—but that didn’t lessen the sting of inadequacy, of conditional love.
I started reading a collection of essays edited by Meghan Daum called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, and it has changed my life; it has fortified me. The essays are beautifully written and curated, and it is beyond brilliant and empowering to read accounts of other writers—people who have achieved what I one day hope to—who are childless by choice. When I read the words of women who describe their voracious appetite for life but their utter disinterest in motherhood, I feel I’m catching a rare glimpse of my future self—a woman I rather like and admire. My greatest fear in regards to this topic, currently, is not unlike what many of the essayists say was their greatest fear when they were twenty- and thirty-somethings: What if children are something I need to be whole? My greatest comfort comes from an essay written by a much older woman who reports, from one of the later decades in life, that she has no regrets, that she has led, and is leading, a full life of passion and adventure. I wish I could thank her for that gift.